Finding Time: A Wild and Empty Journey to the Arctic Ocean

Wind waves rolled downstream, white spray whipping off their crests with each gust. We were intent on keeping our light little packrafts pointed straight. Going broadside to the wind and waves meant flipping over. When the river ran north, we surfed with the wind at our backs. Whenever the river veered the slightest bit west, we became engaged in a desperate struggle to stay left, beneath the shelter of the bank, otherwise we’d get blown helplessly into the right shoreline.

Three of us – me, my wife, Lisa, and my brother, Jerry – were traveling from northwest Alaska’s De Long Mountains to the Arctic Ocean, negotiating a route from the south side of the mountains to the North Slope, down the Kokolik River. If you look at the area on Google Earth, you’ll see a vast treeless terrain of muted browns and greens, with peculiar curving ridgelines running across the paths of the region’s north-flowing rivers. The area is less renowned than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge hundreds of miles to the east, mainly because it is just so damn empty. This is not a place of inspiring granite peaks, but rather wide tundra valleys and endless skies. It is a place that feels unchanged and unchangeable, as if the land is simply waiting out the next geologic epoch. If you look at this area on a map of colored land-use boundaries, however, the region is titled such: National Petroleum Reserve.

Passing food-chain victims en route to the crest of the Brooks Range.

This part of the far north was first labeled for oil in 1923. World War I was still fresh in our national memory, and if we had to go to extremes for military resources, it was thought, this place might fit the bill. We called it the Naval Petroleum Reserve. It was, and still is, the largest single tract of public land in the USA, about the size of a midwestern state.

Documented exploration by non-natives came in the following years, when hardy geologists undertook a series of journeys by dogsled and canoe; mushing in on April snowpack, mapping the geology all summer, and paddling out before freeze-up. In the last year of those initial geologic explorations – 1926 – a fellow by the name of Gerald Fitzgerald traveled from Kotzebue, Alaska, up the Kivalina River and down the Kokolik River. It was the same route we traversed, but ours was a tamer version; instead of dogsleds and canoes, we traveled in by bush plane and floated out by packraft. Unaware of Fitzgerald’s journey, we thought the upper Kokolik might be a first descent. We were only 90 years too late.

Our route on the Kokolik River took us through the little known Naval Petroleum Reserve. Map: Courtesy of Google Earth

It seemed as if not much had changed in the near-century since. On our second day floating down the upper Kokolik, a musk-ox stood up from its bed, a couple hundred feet away at the base of a cut-bank. The wooly beast looked like Gandolf the wizard, with droopy eyes and a dangling wig, a helmet of horn and curved, yellowing tusks. We stared at him from our space-age boats. He stared back with a stoic grace that spanned ice ages.

The view from the river afforded a limited perspective. From that trench, we could never know if there were five caribou nearby or five hundred.

You can still find remains from the last ice age here. Buried teeth of wooly mammoths erode out of the river banks. They fall from the crumbling hillsides faster these days, oozing out with the mud that’s melting beneath lenses of permafrost, running toward water’s edge in sloppy brown streaks. From the river, we had a unique perspective on this melting landscape, from the bottom up. Above the multitudinous mudflows rested the permafrost, perched like a layer of geology near the top of the slope. But this was no rock formation, just a failing foundation for the thick mat of soil on top. The tundra overhung the ice layer like a cornice of wet snow curling off a roofline.

It is a place that feels unchanged and unchangeable, as if the land is simply waiting out the next geologic epoch.

The view from the river afforded a limited perspective. From that trench, we could never know if there were five caribou nearby or five hundred. So when a herd of 50 forded the river in front of us, we pulled ashore and climbed a knoll to get a better view. Two hundred feet above the river, we looked over a valley of 20 square miles. The nearby herds caught your eye first; fifty here, 100 there, 20 crossing the river over there.

As I looked farther across the wide seemingly empty valley with binoculars, the movement of white and tan animals crawled to life like the secrets of a 3-D illustration popping out of a canvas. They were everywhere. The biggest single group numbered only 100 animals, but these groups covered the valley. Their individual movements seemed random, zigzagging to and fro, but taken as a whole the herd walked east to west. A long string of them led out of sight in single file, trailing over the eastern horizon. Through my binoculars, I estimated 5,000 ungulates.

Glassing one of many small caribou herds that totaled an estimated 5,000.

Watching that caribou migration, the land felt timeless, and it was hard to see it as being labeled or designated as anything, much less a petroleum reserve. Although most of the North Slope’s oil lies hundreds of miles to the east of the Kokolik (ANWR boasts over 5,000 barrels of oil per acre, the NPRA carries less than 500 per acre), there could be pipelines and drill pads here too, someday.

In the context of this prehistoric place, their presence would be fleeting. I imagined rusting hulks of steel creaking in the wind without even the hum of a fuel-powered bush plane or the flashy color of a manufactured packraft to pass by. Maybe I was just rationalizing my own contribution to the catastrophically changing climate, but it was hard to not feel insignificant sitting there as an explorer, as a human, as a species. This landscape will endure.

A cold morning beyond treeline.

The wind only got stronger after we left the valley of the migration. To avoid an exposed section of looping meanders, we deflated our boats and hiked a long ridgeline, following shale flagstones that were planted vertically along the route, presumably to assist Inupiaq hunters find their way through the fog long ago. The gale blew steadily from the south, howling across the ridge with gusts strong enough to knock us sideways, stumbling for balance. Long barren hogbacks like the one we walked led southward, where veils of rain approached. To the north, the land flattened until fading into a blue haze over the Arctic Ocean.

Trekking through the wind on a barren ridgeline of the De Long Mountains.

In a couple more days, we would get back to the river and paddle to that sea, onto the calm waters of Kasegaluk Lagoon, home to walrus and beluga whales. We’d meet an Inupiaq elder who would not have a word for this wind, because four-day tempests like this one only ever came in September, never in June, until now. But we had no knowledge of that, no inkling of the future from that ridge. We simply had to find a place where our tent poles wouldn’t snap in the night, or, I should say, during the time of low sun, when the orange fireball would rest on the horizon momentarily before bouncing back into the mid-morning position, where it remained all day until descending back into evening.

Calmer waters at Kasegaluk Lagoon.

We found our flat spot behind a rocky outcrop, and pitched tents as a rainbow formed over the valley below. Although the shelter of cliff was merciful, removing us from the unceasing roar on the ridge, spill-over gusts still invaded our sanctuary, ripping at our tent fly. There was a natural quarry of flat table rocks behind camp, so I spent the evening building a rock wall beside our tent, neatly stacking slate plates in an effort to insulate myself from the harsh environment.

On the edge of the Arctic Ocean at 11 p.m.

My wind shelter didn’t seem like a major impact. It mirrored other rock shelters, ancient hunting nooks, and vertical rock markers we passed, and it could be decades before another human spotted my unusual wall. But it certainly left some trace of our passing, so wasn’t it essentially the same thing as drilling for oil or digging for coal, making life more convenient and comfortable at the expense of natural resources? That is a stretch, perhaps, but all the machinations of man really just felt temporary in the scope of this place. Geologically speaking, none of it really matters so much. It’s more a question of humility, respect, thoughtfulness, how we wish to act as a person, a culture, a species. The arctic is changing rapidly now. Sea ice is receding, permafrost is melting, it rains in winter and snows in spring and blows in June. Everything that lives here will have to adjust, or get swallowed by the land like the wooly mammoth. For now, my rock wall still stands, just as the relics of our insatiable culture will remain, for a time, on the enduring earth.

Tyler Williams is a longtime C&K contributor and the author of Paddling Arizona. His recent work includes ‘The Incident at Burro Creek,’ ‘Secret History of the Green,’ ‘Doug Tompkins, Life and Legacy,’ and the four-part ‘Legends of Rafting‘ series.

All Photos By Tyler Williams.

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